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Using Carnivorous Plants for Wedding Centerpieces

I was five years old when I first fell in love with carnivorous plants after seeing them in the Aquatic House at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

In school, I was taught that if something moved and consumed other organisms, then it was an animal. Plants, on the other hand, were passive life-forms whose primary function was to provide sustenance to higher life-forms. I now knew better. I felt privileged to the secret knowledge that humans had woefully underestimated the plant kingdom. This revelation inspired my lifelong appreciation for plants.

My quest to further understand the dynamics of plant-animal interactions led to my majoring in ecology, publishing a paper on the northern pitcher plant, serving as a natural history curator at the Staten Island Museum, and finally, returning to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where I now serve as curator of the Native Flora Garden. Here I care for a collection of plants that represent one of the most spectacular carnivorous plant habitats in the Northeast, the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

In another fortunate aspect of my life, I fell in love with a woman who is also a gardener by profession and shares many of my values. When we decided to get married, we were living on a property in Staten Island formerly owned and cultivated by Frederick Law Olmsted, codesigner of Central Park and Prospect Park. We were lucky to be able to get married there.

The wedding site referenced the father of traditional American landscape architecture, but my fiancée and I decided to incorporate some very nontraditional plant choices for the ceremony. We created table centerpieces inspired by bog habits and featuring carnivorous plants. I decided on Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and sundews planted in repurposed metal and glazed ceramic containers arranged with accent plants tolerant of bog conditions.

I hope we’re not the only ones to use carnivorous plants in this way. Such arrangements make wonderful, distinctive wedding centerpieces and certainly attract more attention than the traditional white roses and baby’s breath. Below are the details on how I created our centerpieces with information to help anyone do something similar.

Choosing and Sourcing Plants

For too long, carnivorous plants were considered novelty horticulture, but over the last few decades, appreciation has grown for their extraordinary architectural forms and vivid colors. Carnivorous plants are now more prevalent at horticultural trade shows, botanic gardens, and general plant nurseries. Still, the best way to source a diversity of species and cultivars is specialty, mail-order carnivorous plant nurseries.

Probably the most extensive collection of carnivorous plants in the United States is not held by a public garden, but by a private nursery called California Carnivores, founded and co-owned by Peter D’Amato, author of The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants. On the East Coast, Meadowview Biological Research Station offers a wide selection of both carnivorous plants and non-carnivorous accent bog plants. It is also a nonprofit organization with a mission to protect and restore carnivorous plant habitat in the mid-Atlantic region, so your purchase helps support conservation work.

Types of Plants

Carnivorous plants have special adaptations that allow them to capture and digest insects or other animals for nutrients. Most evolved from a need to supplement their nutrient intake in habitats where nitrogen is scarce or hard to access, like bogs. Their adaptations take different forms—from trap-shaped leaves to sticky surfaces and pointed hairs or teeth.

Pitcher Plants

The American pitcher plants (Sarracenia species) have trap leaves rolled into the form of a hollow, pitcher-like tube that mimic flowers. Prey—usually insects—are lured into the entrance of the tube by nectar and bright coloration. Once inside the interior cavity, they are imprisoned by stiff, inward-pointing hairs, slippery walls, and sometimes even drugging—the nectar of some species contain an alkaloid called coniine.

There are at least eight species of American pitcher plant (some taxonomists say as many as 11) All are endemic to North America, with all but one limited to states along the southeastern coast of the United States.

Read More: Grow Carnivorous Plants in a DIY Mini-Bog

That exception is the common, or purple, pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), which has a northern subspecies (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea) that grows from New Jersey north into subarctic Canada. If you want a pitcher plant that will definitely be able to survive cold winters, even in a container, the northern subspecies of the purple pitcher plant is the only sure bet.

The other species may or may not survive in USDA zones colder than 7, depending on the severity of the winter and exposure of the growing conditions. Despite their tender perennial status, all species require a winter dormancy to thrive. This means cooler temperatures and, most importantly, a reduced photoperiod, for three to four months.

The southern, trumpet-shaped species—the yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava), the pale pitcher plant (Sarracenia alata), and the white trumpet pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)—make the most spectacular vertical elements and focal points for container arrangements.

With its lacy white and red fringed upper margins, the white-topped pitcher plant has arguably the most beautiful foliage, and this is largest and most impressive in the later summer to early fall, perfect for a wedding during that time.

All American pitcher plants can be grown in containers without drainage holes. This makes them excellent selections for wedding containers to be given to guests, as they won’t have to be transplanted for years if the container is big enough. In preparation for a wedding or other event, American pitcher plants should receive at least six hours of direct sunlight for adequate growth and coloration.

Venus Flytraps

With a leaf that can snap shut in a tenth of a second, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is probably the most charismatic carnivorous plant. Dionaea is a monotypic genus, which means it contains only one species. However, within that species, breeders have produced many cultivars with a variety of traits. There are all-red cultivars, giant cultivars with two-inch traps, and cultivars with short, stubby “teeth” or fused-triangular teeth that look like Bart Simpson’s hair.

In the entire world, this plant only naturally occurs in sandy wetlands around pine savannas within a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina. To replicate their natural habitat, provide these plants with permanently moist, but not constantly waterlogged, soil media. This makes them less ideal for nondraining containers than pitcher plants long-term. They will tolerate a little less sunlight than pitcher plants, needing at least four hours of direct sun daily in the growing season for healthy trap production. More light is ideal for bright leaf colors. Venus flytraps will also grow best after a winter dormancy period.

Sundews

Cousins to the Venus flytrap, sundews (Drosera species) are also in the Droseraceae family. There are about 250 species known today, and they grow on every continent except Antarctica. They can be found in almost all habitats that support any terrestrial carnivorous plants. The shape of their leaves varies considerably from round to linear to the shapes of straps, spatulas, or even antlers.

What they have in common are leaves covered in little hairlike stalks called trichomes. At the tips of the trichomes are globs of gluey mucilage that sundews use to ensnare and suffocate their prey. In the tristate area there are three native species of sundew: the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), the spoon-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia), and the thread-leaved sundew (Drosera filiformis var. filiformis). These are good selections for containers that are to be grown outside all year in temperate zones as the thread-leaved sundew is hardy to USDA Zone 6 and the other two can tolerate the coldest zones in the contiguous United States with both species reaching Canada, and round-leaved sundew even reaching Alaska.

Curiously, the spoon-leaved sundew’s range reaches south toward the tropics into northern South America. However, if you are trying to grow this species outdoors in the temperate U.S., it is best to grow individuals descended from populations in the northern parts of its range. For best color, these species should receive at least four hours of direct sunlight. All three species will tolerate undrained containers, with the spoon-leaf sundew being particularly tolerant of waterlogged conditions.

For all of the carnivorous plants listed in this article, you should irrigate with water that has less than 100 parts per million dissolved solids and a pH lower than 8. New York City tap water meets these requirements. If your tap water doesn’t fall within these parameters, distilled water, reverse osmosis water, or rainwater is best to use.

Accent Plants

The “thrill, fill, and spill” method is a reliable, aesthetically pleasing way to arrange plants in a container. The carnivorous plants usually perform the “thrill” function as the focal point plants. For “fill” plants, to complement the focal point, and “spill” plants to drape and soften the edges of the container, I mostly relied on noncarnivorous bog plants that shared the carnivorous plants’ cultural needs.

At the surface level, I used live sphagnum moss to cover any bare patches of soil. One of my favorite filler plants was a cultivar of bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia ‘Blue Ice’) because its blue-gray foliage contrasted nicely with the crimsons and bright greens of the carnivorous plants.

For a spiller, I relied heavily on one of our great native fruit species, the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon). Depending on the season of your wedding, you may also have the option of including bog orchids in your arrangement. For example, there is grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus), which blooms in spring to early summer, or for a fall wedding try a lady’s tresses orchid cultivar (Spiranthes cernua odorata ‘Chadds Ford’).

Containers and Media

For containers, your options are mostly only limited by the object’s ability to hold water. Metal, plastic, or glazed ceramic containers are best. Vintage silver ashtrays, teapots, ice buckets, vases, urns, and tins can be found at thrift stores, flea markets, yard sales, and antique stores.

Avoid terra-cotta containers because they dry out quickly and can accumulate harmful salts if lower quality water is being used. Also, avoid concrete containers because they are alkaline, so they can leach and raise the pH of the soil, which is harmful to acid-loving carnivorous plants.

Before adding your plants, fill these containers with a low-nutrient, acidic, airy soil mix such as half sphagnum moss and half sand. This soil mix should be hydrated and mixed together before adding it to the container.

If you intend to keep the plants in the containers after the wedding as giveaways or for yourself, fill the container entirely with this planting mix. If the containers are only going to be on display for the wedding and then broken down, you can fill the container up to about four inches below the rim with some kind of space-filler, like small plastic pots turned on their sides.

Line the remaining space with a water-tight, reusable plastic bag and fill the bag with the sphagnum-sand mix. This saves money and soil and also makes the containers lighter and easier to move.

Arrangements

Once I had my plants and my containers, I selected focal point plants and then assigned them to containers that would best complement them in color, size, and shape. From there, I added accent plants.

Many of the containers echoed the structure of the plants themselves. For example, in the centerpiece above, the shape of the vintage silver ashtray echoed the Venus flytrap leaves. Smaller centerpieces like this are also nice for displaying delicate plants like the thread-leaved sundews framing the flytrap and the tiny spoon-leaved sundews at the front of tray. The fern’s darker green foliage also offsets the flytrap nicely. (When Venus flytraps and sundews receive adequate lighting, they produce anthocyanin pigments of bright red.)

Venus flytraps do better in containers that have some drainage, or deeper undrained containers, so I would not recommend growing them like this permanently, but for a few weeks around the wedding, they will be just fine.

This silver ice bucket contains a pitcher plant cultivar (Sarracenia ‘Bug Bat’), cranberry plant, and ferns. There were periods of light rain during our wedding, so it was nice that the reflective silver containers provided some illumination to the dinner tables on a cloudy, wet day. Since American pitcher plants generally tolerate undrained containers well, these plants could be left in a container like this for years, provided the pitcher plant gets its winter dormancy.

This vase is made of a duller metallic material that feels a little more rustic than the silver. It contains a pitcher plant species with shorter, squatter habit, accented by sensitive fern, scouring rush, and bog rosemary. When grown in full sun, sensitive fern takes this chartreuse color, which accents that other plants nicely. Over time, the sensitive fern and the scouring rush would have to be kept in check, as they are quite aggressive.

I like puns, so I couldn’t resist a pitcher of pitchers. When working with pitcher plants in arrangements, it’s important to remember that they are super effective at trapping arthropods, sometimes catching so much prey that the leaves topple from the additional weight. To make sure this didn’t happen, after the plant came out of its winter dormancy, I cut off all remaining leaves from the previous growing season.

Then I stuffed cotton balls in the “mouths” of the new pitchers so that prey could not be captured. To provide the plant with nutrients during this time, I applied a foliar spray to the leaves with a highly diluted kelp-based fertilizer called Maxsea. I used a mix with a ratio of a quarter-teaspoon per gallon of water and applied it to the outer foliage twice a month until the wedding was over in May.

After the reception, I removed the cotton, and allowed my plants to do the miraculous thing they had evolved to do—capture and digest members of the “dominant” animal kingdom. It was enjoyable to take some time with the containers after the wedding and reflect on the reception. The wedding day seemed to pass by in an instant compared to the months of planning that had preceded it. Friends, relatives, and even the photographer said that personal touches like the centerpieces had made the day feel unique and truly representative of who we are.

The Olmsted-Beil House

The Dutch farmhouse adjacent to the site where we once lived and held our wedding was built in the late 17th century. Frederick Law Olmsted purchased the house and farm in 1848 and gave it to his son, who later renovated it and used the property as a farm and tree nursery. The property still supports Osage orange trees planted under Olmsted’s oversight. In 2006, the NYC Parks Department acquired a portion of the site, and the Friends of Olmsted-Beil House is currently working to preserve Olmsted’s original farm property as a site of historical significance as a public park so that all New Yorkers can access and enjoy it.

Will Lenihan is curator of Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Native Flora Garden.

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The author visiting the Aquatic House as a child. Photo by Toby Lenihan.
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The author, Will Lenihan, and his wife, Jenny Blackwell, on their wedding day. Photo by Kyo Morishima.
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Photo by Kyo Morishima.
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Photo by Kyo Morishima.
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Photo by Kyo Morishima.
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Venus flytrap plants Dionaea muscipula in the wild. Photo by Will Lenihan.
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A white trumpet pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) in Brooklyn Botanic Garden's aquatic plant display. Photo by Will Lenihan.
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Yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava) in the wild. Photo by Will Lenihan.
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Thread-leaved sundew (Drosera filiformis var. filiformis) in the wild. Photo by Will Lenihan.
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Photo by Will Lenihan.
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The author's carnivorous plant centerpieces adorn the tables at his wedding. Photo by Kyo Morishima.
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Photo by Kyo Morishima.
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The author's carnivorous plant centerpieces adorn the tables at his wedding. Photo by Kyo Morishima. Photo by Kyo Morishima.